Mold Gold Cape

Contributed by British Museum

A ceremonial gold cape from almost 4,000 years ago, found by workmen quarrying. © Trustees of the British Museum

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This gold cape was originally found in a grave in North Wales. It has been crafted from a single gold ingot beaten to a breathtakingly thin sheet. We do not know who wore the cape but it could only fit a slim woman or child. Whoever wore it must also have possessed great power and wealth. This wealth may have been generated by the nearby Great Orme - the largest copper mine in north-west Europe. This would have been a major trading centre for prehistoric communities.

How did people live in Bronze Age Britain?

When this gold cape was made people in Britain did not live in permanent villages, nor did they build cities or palaces. Bronze Age Britons lived in socially fluid communities moving with their herds and possessions through the landscape, burying their dead in round barrows. Despite not living in cities or a state they were capable of creating incredibly sophisticated objects like the Mold Gold Cape. Individual communities were connected by an extensive trade network that spanned north-west Europe.

The gold ingot from which this cape was made would have been about the size of a ping pong ball

Who wore this cape?

When a spectacular object is found buried with an individual, the usual assumption made is that the person must have been a male adult – perhaps a warrior, a chief or religious leader. This is what people first thought when they found the fragments of the Mold Gold Cape.

It was only through painstaking reconstruction over many years by Ian McIntyre in the British Museum that this idea was challenged. The cape in its final form was far too small to be for a man – it would only fit a petite lady or a child.

The skeleton was lost soon after it was found by workmen, so we will never know its gender. But it’s a good reminder that archaeologists always interpret the past with the prejudices of the present. Our vision of what societies were like in the Bronze Age changes with new discoveries such as the Mold Gold Cape.

The cape is unique – there is really nothing to compare it to in the whole of Europe. This makes it more difficult to understand why it was made and what significance it had.

The impression given by the design is that the cape was trying to imitate strands of beads slung over the shoulders. There are small holes along the neckline and body of the cape so we can assume that it formed part of a bigger costume.

When worn, it would have restricted how you could move and it surely must have only come out for special occasions. What those occasions were we will never know.

When really stuck for an idea of what an object was used for, archaeologists tend to say ritual – how about I say that the Mold Cape was ceremonial!

Ben Roberts, Curator, British Museum

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Comments

  • 7 comments
  • 1. At 23:48 on 14 March 2010, NeilSolihull wrote:

    If ever there was a subject for a programme it would be to challenge a modern goldsmith to recreate this cape, ideally using the methods, facilities and techniques which we have to assume would be available 4000 years ago. A little bit like a Monty Don programme but for experts, and absolutely fascinating

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  • 2. At 17:18 on 3 July 2010, Gundula Azeez wrote:

    Very impressive. I think historians should be much more cautious about assuming that this object was made by British goldmsiths, however. If nearly all of the British archeological evidence of this period points to simple agricultural societies, then that is probably correct. Traders and invaders from other more sophisticated societies will surely have occasionally left artifacts behind, which might account for atypical objects such as this. So, which other regions and societies could have produced this gold and workmanship? We need to keep an open mind.

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  • 3. At 00:23 on 5 August 2010, StampWoman wrote:

    Dear Mr. Roberts, Another line of inquiry, I suppose, is why was such an object buried at all and not part of a legacy? Wouldn't a ceremonial object been associated with an office/function as well as a person? People must have been very affluent to be able to afford to bury such items, no matter what they expected in the "afterlife", and no matter how much they valued the person they were burying. If 19th century farmers couldn't pass it up, I imagine it must have been all the more remarkable in its own time. Fascinating series! Thank you very much.

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  • 4. At 00:33 on 9 September 2010, Setantii wrote:

    What an incredible item and fascinating series. Just a few comments on those above; Stampwoman - the ancient Britons made numerous votive offerings of highly valued and useful items in bodies of water and in the ground. They would not have thought twice about burying an important person with their most prized possessions for the afterlife (like this beautiful gold cape). Gundala Azeez, I suspect you have an agenda in making this comment - I can only suggest you check out Welsh gold mining nearby and numerous artifacts from the same period including gold torcs, the Broighter gold boat and realise that the style of this item is similar to numerous other items attributed to ancient British gold-working.

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  • 5. At 01:57 on 15 October 2010, vbar wrote:

    I was considering very similar thoughts to you, Gundula Azeez. With many foreigners bringing their ceremonial regalia as well as their beliefs I would consider that since there doesn't seem to be a solid reason to know this pattern, knowledge and ceremony I suspect it wasn't an early Britian but a foreigner far from home which is also why the burial lay undisturbed as it was likely deliberately hidden from the locals.

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  • 6. At 21:42 on 1 January 2011, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    What a pity bits are missing. Presumably stolen? Without any proof to the contrary why should it be presumed the whole outfit wasn?t stolen and then divvied up in the first place? Its not as though our countryside or Europe as a whole for that matter is filled with such wonderful cape-like discoveries. Torques yes, capes no. Brain washing yes, long standing association with nationalism, no. Like so many other items in The BM one has every right to consider what long and chequered histories did preceded the innocent looking label. What about those golden statues of ancient Rome? Here's a golden cape wripped from a fallen emperors bust. Has anyone thought along these lines?

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  • 7. At 20:47 on 9 January 2011, Kevin Newman wrote:

    Might I suggest an alternative hypothesis? This cape was used to adorn a life-size statue, probably only on special ceremonial occasions, and kept safely locked up in a palace the rest of the year. It was too delicate to have been worn by a fully grown adult but could have been worn by a prince or princess at a coming-of-age ritual ceremony.

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About this object

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Location

Mold, Flintshire, North Wales

Period

About 1900-1600 BC

Theme
Size
H:
23.5cm
W:
46.5cm
D:
28cm
Colour
Material

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